The story of George Mason University and its improbable path to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament brings to mind the odd couple of Paxton Lumpkin and King David. Or perhaps not so odd.
Back in 1954, it was still not possible for an all-black team to win at the Illinois High School Association’s statewide basketball championship, known in the vernacular as — you guessed it — March Madness. But Paxton Lumpkin, a 6-foot guard who was later compared with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, led his DuSable High School team to the Chicago championship, earning a shot at the statewide crown. They dominated the first three rounds and made it to the IHSA finals against Mt. Vernon. Nine out of ten players on Mt. Vernon’s squad were white (although the lone black was their leading scorer), and the refs were committed to their winning.
In the last minute of the championship game, DuSable closed to within one point and gained possession of the ball. As Lumpkin brought the ball up the court, he could see what would happen. Mt. Vernon would have someone wrap him up and the ref would never call the foul. So he suddenly let the ball fly from behind the midcourt line. It arced gracefully toward the hoop and for an improbable moment seemed destined to fall through. But it caught some rim and bounced out. Mt. Vernon rebounded and eventually won 76-70.
After the game, Paxton famously cried behind his towel in the locker room. The reporters knew what really happened, but everyone played it innocent. “Paxton,” they asked. “Why did you take that crazy shot?” “Because I had a dream the night before,” he answered.
“But, Paxton, just because you make a shot in a dream doesn’t mean you can make it in real life.”
“Oh, I missed it in my dream, too.”
“But, Paxton, if you couldn’t even make it in your dream, why did you take the shot?”
Paxton answered their spoken question and all the unspoken ones, as well: “I was hoping to improve upon my dream.”
THUS PAXTON LUMPKIN. Now King David. Everyone always speaks of an underdog giant-killer team as either a Cinderella or David-vs.-Goliath. What they forget is that the story of Cinderella was cribbed from the earlier story of David (Samuel I Ch. 16). The prophet Samuel was told to go to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king-to-be. He came in to Jesse’s house and immediately saw the tall, handsome elder son, Eliav. Surely this was the man who was royal material. No, said God, he has been rejected: “Man sees with his eyes but God sees to the heart.” One by one Samuel checks the sons and receives the prophetic veto, until none are left. “Do you have one more son, by any chance?” “Oh, you mean the kid?” Yep, it’s the little redhead kid, off playing the harp and writing poetry, there’s your king.
Why was the elder son rejected? The Talmud deduces the reason. His only other appearance in Scripture is later (17:28), when he bawls David out for coming to visit the battlefield, angrily accusing him of neglecting the sheep. David’s answer is a classic: “What have I done now? This is really something!” This is why the outwardly impressive Eliav is unfit, too temperamental.
Then David turns away from his brother and accepts the challenge of facing Goliath. He already defeated a bear and a lion while defending his sheep, so he feels he can take the big guy down, too. They offer him a suit of armor but when he wears it he can hardly move. “I’m not used to this,” he says. “Let me do it my way.” He takes off the armor and wins by using his slingshot.
This is the story of the plucky heroes from George Mason, winning despite the fact that Professor Walter Williams is ineligible to join them. They don’t limit themselves to the legitimate aspirations permitted to denizens of the Colonial Athletic association; like Lumpkin they are exceeding their own wildest dreams. Like David, they get an inkling that maybe they can take down the next opponent, only because they managed to outlast the previous one. And they emulate him also in refusing the armor, never letting the super-sized teams draw them out of their well-organized, even-tempo little-man game.
But most importantly they are worthy of kingship because they are not pushy and demanding. They have not said a bad word against an opposing player or a referee. They just come out ready to play every night; they respect their coach, respect the competition and respect the game. These are the traits that mark the true heroes of the ages: mmm, Saturday’s game against Florida should be incredible.
(A brief personal note: In 1979, at age 21, I picked up a copy of The American Spectator and fell in love. I have subscribed ever since. A quarter-century later, in 2004, my dream came true and I was published in my favorite magazine. This is my 100th column for TAS, and I dedicate it to Wlady, who opened the door.)